Weight-loss myths: Is sugar-free all it’s cracked up to be?

August 1, 2014 - Health & Nutrition, Nutrition

92071428sugarfree1You might automatically assume that foods labelled ‘sugar-free’ are lower in calories – the subtext being ‘better for you’ – than those that aren’t, but that is not always the case.

The UK has one of the highest obesity levels in Western Europe, with 67% of men and 57% of women classed as either overweight or obese. Part of the problem is that often we don’t actually understand what we’re eating or drinking, even when the nutritional information is provided. It’s all to do with perception.

Fruit drinks labelled as having ‘no added sugar’ will still deliver the equivalent of five teaspoons per 250ml, purely from their naturally occurring sugars – yet the ‘no added sugar’ message can trick us into assuming that they’re sugar-free (and therefore lower in calories than they actually are). An innocent-looking bottle of Innocent strawberry and banana smoothie contains the equivalent of six teaspoons of sugar – about the same as a Crunchie – while the average can of cola’s 135 kcal comes entirely from the near-on seven teaspoons of sugar that it packs.

Studies have also found links between weight gain and fizzy drinks. Now you know how much added sugar fizzy drinks contain, you might not find this surprising, but what does some strange at first glance is that people who regularly have diet drinks also tend to experience a large increase in their waistlines compared with those who stick to more traditional beverages, like water.

One ten-year study carried out by epidemiologists from the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center found that people who drank two or more diet drinks a day saw waist circumference increases that were 500% greater than those who steered clear of them such drinks. Artificial sweeteners may be ‘free of calories but not of consequences,’ commented study lead Professor Helen Hazuda.

So what’s going on? Well, another large-scale study of over 23,000 Americans suggests that overweight and obese people tend to compensate for their reduced calorie intake from diet drinks by eating more food, so they end up taking in the same number of calories overall as those have sugar-sweetened drinks. This might be done consciously or, as the researchers hypothesised, another reason might be that the sweet taste of diet drinks disrupts appetite control by revving up ‘sugar-reward’ pathways in the brain, leading to cravings for sweet-tasting foods to ensure you’re getting a hit of real sugar that the ‘fake’ stuff can’t deliver.

Aside from drinks, ready-meals and other processed foods can cause us problems, too. Ready-meals can seem like a great option for dinner if you’re in a rush, but they can also be surprisingly high in sugar, even if they’re reassuringly labelled as ‘low fat’. So the mantra is ALWAYS read the nutritional label, and remember that ‘sugars’ include sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, honey, invert sugar, hydrolysed starch and corn syrup; and to be classed as ‘low in sugars’ a food or drink must have no more than 5g sugars per 100g (or 2.5g sugars per 100ml). The higher up the ingredients list you see any of these words, the higher in sugars the food is.

The other key point is to focus more on making your own meals. Quality homemade meals will generally be better for you, as you control exactly what goes into them. Need a bit more advice? Here are some quick switches you can make to healthier options.

Fizzy drinks
DITCH IT: Overpriced and unnecessary for a healthy diet.
SWITCH IT: If you’re hooked on bubbles, try calorie-free fizzy water – add a LighterLife Drink Mix to pep it up.

Low-fat ready meals
DITCH IT: Low-fat branded processed meals can be higher in sugar than you’d believe at first glance – simply because the manufacturers need to replace the fats they’ve removed with sugars to maintain a palatable taste and texture.
SWITCH IT: Use the meal ideas in our blogs, in your food-reintroduction plan, our Living Lighter Every Day recipe book and, of course, our magazine to create your own healthy meals – cook up twice the required quantity, portion out and freeze for your own instant healthy ready-meal.

Fat-free yoghurts
These yoghurts may lack fat but many are full of added sugars to improve the taste.
SWITCH IT: Read the label carefully to look for lower-sugar varieties. A plain, unsweetened, low-fat yoghurt as a topping for fruit makes a great fibre-packed dessert that will help to keep you feeling fuller for longer. Low-fat Greek-style yoghurts tend to be higher in protein than other types of yoghurt so they make a satisfying option.

For more information read our ‘Is Sugar Really The Enemy of a Healthy Diet’ article, or to find out about how to join LighterLife call 0800 2 988 988 or visit